NIU’s grading system needs to be evaluated

The following column is written by a graduate student in computer science and it does not necessarily reflect the views of Northern Star staff.

It is time that a sustained attack be made on the legitimacy of the university academic grading system.

Academic grades currently have a very powerful impact on people’s ability to access opportunities which will enable them to contribute at their highest level to their society and to be maximally productive in their own lives.

The grades a university issues are, in part, an indication of how well the university has done its job in enabling the recipients of those grades to master a particular topic of study. Grades are also an indication of how well a university has been able to evaluate the subject mastery it presumably hoped to enable. And to some degree, grades are an indication of the intellect and effort of the students. This last aspect is greatly overemphasized, while the previous two go substantially unexamined.

The current grading system is not legitimate because universities fail to adequately prepare many students to take the tests that are graded. Tests go under different names: tests, quizzes, homework assignments, papers, etc. These are all tests.

What do the universities do? Universities typically give some information out, and perhaps some examples, and then they think they have done their jobs—this is traditionally known as “teaching.” The students are now considered ready for a test, which will be graded. This is adequate for some students, but the majority of students are poorly served by this method, as evidenced by the grades they receive.

Those who are adequately served by this method of learning become eligible to become professors and instructors. They typically won’t see a problem with the status quo because it works well for some people, and worked for them. That it is not legitimate is counter-intuitive to many of the people in this well-served population.

People learn in different ways, and it is detrimental to many in the student population that the model of how people who are currently members of the well-served population learn is the learning model which dominates.

The majority of students would be much better served by universities if the universities were to give a higher priority and status to assisting students in their quest for mastery of their subjects, and a lower priority and status to “teaching.” For many, the best way to prepare for a test would be to encounter material through study and lecture and then to run through sample tests with answers available, which cover the important “testable” material. Sample tests with answers would give feedback. They would assist students in organizing, correcting, updating and refining their knowledge, as well as help students focus on “the important material.” Representative sample tests could substantially assist many students in getting a better mastery of their subjects—and of no less importance, getting better credentials in the form of grades.

All courses that have tests should offer students sample tests, which, if gone through by the students, will result in the level of knowledge acquisition that will tend to bring about a similar high level score on the “real tests.” This would allow more students more of an interactive knowledge of their subject, and would give them feedback which would help them learn more effectively. If this is not brought about, the interests of many students will continue to be sacrificed, as well as the interests of the society itself. Presently, tests generally evaluate how well students can recall information based on studying, and the resulting grade shows how well this works with various individual students.

The current grading system is most powerfully legitimized by the fact that its legitimacy is basically unquestioned. What worked for those who populate the teaching staffs at universities poorly serves the bulk of the student populations at universities, and should not be allowed to be perpetuated to the detriment of the bulk of the student population, their children who likewise be poorly served, and to the society which finances the universities.

The major practical role of the university with respect to students and society is twofold. It exists to give the student credentials, and to assist students in achieving subject mastery. It is time for the universities, including NIU, to dispense with “teaching,” and replace it with “assisting students in the mastery of their subjects.”

As teacher evaluation time comes around, why not rate, in your comments, how well NIU assisted you in the mastery of the subject you are evaluating? If it failed to do this well, it is irrelevant how well it did “teaching.”

It is time that we at NIU, including those in the poorly-served student population noted above, work to alter NIU’s philosophy to a more democratically oriented one which has as a tenet assisting students in the mastery of their subjects, in contrast to the traditional notion of teaching, which best serves the recall elite (those who can effectively recall well based on encountering teaching and study alone). To pick this up as a major issue would be an excellent way for the SA to serve a large portion of the student body. For the state government to be encouraged in this matter would well serve our society.

I would welcome a public debate with any opponent of this philosophy who has standing in the academic community. The exposure and examination of the ideas on both sides will insure the best policy outcome. I would also challenge those in the academic community who believe in this to take this issue as their own, or become part of the movement to make this happen.